Richmal Crompton published nine books of short stories and seven of these were published in the period 1926-1929; four were published in 1928. I have been reading these collections and have been thinking quite a bit about the main theme in one of these books.
A Monstrous Regiment (1927) is dedicated to promoting the voice of women, but I am not sure that I can make a claim that it has feminist credentials. Crompton as a young woman did not join the suffrage movement, but she writes about the concerns of women who want to have professional careers and more independence from their families and husbands in many of her novels and stories. I have been reflecting in particular on the idea of ‘a room of one’s own’.
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf was published for the first time on 24 October 1929. The essay was based on a series of lectures she delivered at Newnham College and Girton College, two women’s colleges at Cambridge University, in October 1928. It makes a plea for women writers to find somewhere to write and earn their living doing so. She asks her peers, famous or unknown, to find their own voice because, “it is much more important to be oneself than anything else”. Crompton wrote a sister piece that reflects comparable concerns. In A Monstrous Regiment, published in 1927, is a story called “Martin Ford”.
The opening lines of this story are as follows: “Evelyn Ross entered her study, closed the door, and drew a deep breath. The study was her sanctuary. It was the only room in the house that did not reflect her husband’s taste—blatant, obvious, and bordering on the vulgar”. She loves her husband, but feels suffocated by his invasion into every corner of her life: “She has felt as some sensitive water creature must feel dragged from its watery hiding-places, panting its life away on a curious hand”. Writing literary articles becomes an escape for Evelyn: “It was a refuge and a perpetual delight”. She publishes articles and books under a male pseudonym, Martin Ford. One of the authors she criticises is Milner Lawson. One evening her husband confesses that he has been writing novels under this pseudonym and her world falls apart as he suggests that his novels are kept in her study: “She knew now what she must do. If he was Milner Lawson, she could not be Martin Ford…. Nothing—nothing was to be left to her”. In a short piece of only ten pages this story is not a subtle piece. It is blunt and partisan in its message: “She clung blindly and doggedly to the two great realities life held, her love for him and his love for her”. In the end, it is her love for her husband, rather than her life as a writer, that must come first. This seems a frustrating and disappointing response. Crompton’s story is not the ‘call to arms’ encouraged by Virginia Woolf. Crompton’s feminism is tempered with constraint.
The stories in this book are all about the lives of women from different classes and age groups. In another story, “Freedom”, the main female character has been having an illicit affair with a married man for seventeen years. She finds out that he has decided to trade her in for a younger model and she warns, rather than attacks, her younger rival. Her relationship with him ends and as a result, “she felt as if she had been eased of some intolerable burden. And life lay before her”, although there remains no suggestion that her ex-lover’s behaviour will change.
Some might argue that the tone of this collection reflects an underlying conservatism, what Alison Light, in her book Forever England: Feminity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars (1991), calls “conservative modernism”. Light argues that this is representative of other women middlebrow writers who, with an eye on advocating change in the lives of women for the future, are at the same time still rooted in the traditions of the past.
The title of this collection is worth a comment too. A friend pointed out to me that The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women was published by John Knox in 1558. This is an attack on women as rulers in a period when Mary, Queen of Scots and Mary I of England were in power. Knox was a staunch Protestant, but his arguments against Catholicism met a hostile reception with the coronation of Elizabeth I in 1559. Crompton’s collection explores the lives of all sorts of women, but none of them reach these dizzy heights of power, they are just perceived as dizzy.